A day in a house director’s life



By Becca Clemons | @KyKernel

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Judy Cockrum equates what she does to running a hotel.

She’s on call 24 hours a day, is responsible for supervising maintenance and employing a staff, and she sees hundreds of people come and go each year. She’s even won her employer the Sam’s Club Small Business of the Year award because she shops in bulk so often.

But unlike a hotel, her residents have a more extended stay. Cockrum is the house director for Kappa Alpha Theta sorority, which has about 200 members, with 42 women living in the sorority house on Columbia Avenue.

To both those familiar and unaccustomed to sorority life, running a house full of college-aged women could seem like a daunting task. A house director’s job is to keep everything at the house running smoothly, from keeping track of finances and managing housekeeping staff to planning dinners and keeping boys out at night.

“I have friends who aren’t in the profession at all who ask ‘What do you do with your day?’ ” said Cockrum, who is “Mom J” to students. “It’s busy. It’s not from 9 to 5 under any circumstances.”

Between bringing large hauls home from Sam’s and supervising all of the sorority house’s operations, she is a friend, mentor and confidant to all of the Theta women. Throughout the day, they visit Cockrum in her apartment inside the Theta house, where she lives with her blind Shih Tzu, Francisco, to discuss whatever they might need to get off their chest.

“They know that when they come through that door that what they tell me is in confidence,” Cockrum said. She said she’s heard stories about broken families, heartbreak, failing exams and financial problems.

“One of my main responsibilities is to build young women,” she said. “I see them come in here all glassy eyed, and when they leave, they’re mature young women.”

“A tremendous transition” happens between when the women come in as freshmen to when they graduate, said Donna Sheehan, the house director at Delta Zeta sorority for the past 12 1/2 years.

Sheehan said the job has a little bit of everything involved and that each day is different.

“You have to enjoy young people, and I do,” she said.

She said that each Greek house takes on the personality of the house director, and each director manages differently. Many of the directors also are friends with each other, meeting for dinner or going to the movies; one day last week, Cockrum and Sheehan made a date to go to Josie’s Restaurant.

Being a house director — or “house mom,” as the position is often called — is not for “little gray haired old ladies,” as Cockrum first thought when she took the job in 2002. Directors come from different points in their lives and various backgrounds. In fact, some fraternities have men as house directors, while others have women.

As Cockrum plans to leave her job as house director after 11 years, she said she will miss her support system at Theta.

“They have been with me through the highest points of my life and the lowest points of my life,” she said. “I have the support of all these magnificent women.”

The Theta women share with Cockrum many details of their lives over dinner or in closed quarters. They laugh over dinner as they talk about their weekends — often sharing stories they might not take home to their mothers. “They will make bad decisions,” she said. “I wish I could say that all of the decisions I made in college were perfect.”

Another phrase many of the Theta women have come to know: “Been there, done that, bought the T-shirt.”

Cockrum said her job often involves teaching young women the basics of living on their own. She has hosted etiquette dinners (for both sororities and fraternities), led cooking classes and even taught some students how to use the washer and dryer.

“She’s become like the second mom for all of us,” said McKenzie Meyer, a senior in Theta, “and she’s really made the Theta house a second home, especially for those who live far away.

“She doesn’t limit her job to just being a house mother,” Meyer said. “She becomes our confidant. She edits our English papers. She’s a shoulder to cry on and talk to about anything.”

The chapter hosted its annual Mom J Appreciation Week in the fall, even before Cockrum made her decision to retire to spend more time with her children and grandchildren in Arkansas (seven of her eight grandchildren live there, including a set of triplets). They wrote her notes expressing appreciation.

“When I read those notes from these girls it makes me realize how important this position is,” Cockrum said. “It’s really humbling.”